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A Teacher of Professionals

Acting instructor Clark Houston Lewis thrives on nurturing students’ talents

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Clark Houston Lewis working with his acting students. Photo by Bob Toy.

Academy of Art University School of Acting instructor Clark Houston Lewis was more interested in music than theater when he was growing up. But after earning a degree in choral conducting from the Juilliard School, he gravitated to acting in off-Broadway and regional East Coast productions. He also started coaching other actors and singers. His clients have included stars like Marisa Tomei and other lead actors appearing in Broadway musicals such as A Chorus Line and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. After moving to Los Angeles, he continued coaching and also directed numerous plays, films and television shows.

Tired of living in the city, Lewis moved to Sonoma in 2000. He liked the slower pace of life in his new community but felt it lacked a high-quality theater. In 2005, he filled that void by starting Roustabout Theater. Roustabout puts on professional-caliber plays and offers master classes taught by nationally recognized actors, directors and musicians along with summer camps for young performers.

“The idea was to build a theater with both a strong professional component and a strong training component so the two could feed each other,” said Lewis. “We expect the actors we train to come back and be in our shows.”

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Photo by Bob Toy.

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Photo by Bob Toy.

Lewis started teaching acting classes at the Academy three years ago and thrives on the energy and talent of his students. He has directed them in a variety of plays, including Hurlyburly and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, and is excited about his upcoming production of  Hair, the Academy’s first musical.  It will run at the Sutter Street Theatre (620 Sutter Street) on April 24–25 and May 1–2.

Set in the ‘60s, Hair focuses on the growing anti-war and counter-culture movements that spurred many young Americans at the time to challenge society’s values and change their lives. An infectious rock score added to the play’s appeal and helped make it a huge hit on Broadway.

 

According to Lewis, he and his class wanted to perform the iconic musical because its themes are still relevant today.  “It appealed to us because it’s so student and youth-driven, something we could relate to,” he explained. “There’s also this strange feeling in the air about Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria that’s similar to the anti-Vietnam stuff happening when Hair first came out.”

Lewis also likes Hair because it poses universal questions many young people grapple with as they become adults, such as how do you create a life that’s meaningful to you, and follow what you believe in.

“The play is a way for us to explore these ideas,” said Lewis, who turned 18 soon after the military draft ended but worried as a boy that he’d be forced to go to Vietnam. “It’s important to have this experience of stepping outside the mainstream and questioning adherence to cultural standards and norms.”

Lewis’s production of Hair features a cast of 33 actors who will be backed by a live band. He thinks the number of exceptional musically talented students performing in the show will surprise audiences. He also stressed that the cast is as focused on strong acting as they are on singing.  

“We wanted to make sure we played to the students’ acting strengths and that every character is doing something active on stage,” he said. “We have a really variegated, interesting group of students. It’s fantastic to watch them work at such a high level.”

When asked what advice he’d offer students pursuing an acting career, his answer echoed some of the messages of Hair. “You need to ask yourself who you are and how you can best contribute to the world around you,” said Lewis. “If you go into what you love and are naturally energized by, you can find a way to succeed at it that works for you. That’s how I feel, and I’ve been lucky enough to do what I love.”